There is a general consensus that the best Netflix true crime series – now virtually a genre in themselves – comprise all or most of the following: an appalling central crime; multiple suspects; an almost equally appalling miscarriage of justice and a consequent re-examination that leads to justice. The original for this template was 2015’s Making a Murderer. By these lights, it was also the best, but there have been many more since – covering abuse in the Catholic church, abductions and infamous and unfamous cases alike.
Now we have Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, a three-part film made by John Dower with the blessing and cooperation of Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s family. At the time of her death, just before Christmas 25 hace años que, the French television producer was staying in her holiday home in the tiny Irish town of Schull. In a remote corner of the south-west of the country, it is overlooked by Mount Gabriel, cual, local legend has it, was the home until the 18th century of the last wolves in Ireland. It was there that her head was bludgeoned with a concrete block, her body found a day later tangled in briars. “I can still see her now, clear as day,” says Eugene Gilligan, the Garda forensic detective who was called to the scene. It was the first murder there in living memory.
The film contains interviews with Schull residents from the time, who mostly remain Schull residents still, however utterly changed the place became for them. They paint a picture of a small, welcoming community comprising rural natives and many “blow-ins” who, like Sophie herself (who otherwise lived a glamorous but ill-fitting life with her film director husband in France), were attracted to the wild beauty and isolation of the region and the peace and solitude it could offer. Farmers, artists and hippies lived happily alongside each other (“I was the lesbian feminist blow-in!” laughs Toma McCullim) .
Thousands of door-to-door interviews and re-interviews quickly narrowed the list of suspects down to one man – investigative journalist and local inhabitant Ian Bailey. Most of the three parts of the film are focused on how the police built a case against Bailey, which included several witness statements of drunken confessions he had apparently made. The director of public prosecutions failed to agree and refused to prosecute him. He was and remains the only suspect in the murder. He continues to deny any involvement.
The film is oddly weighted and slightly simplistically structured. It spends a lot of time following one version of events and then crams the unpicking and undermining of it – the showcasing of doubts, potential flaws in police procedure and possible inappropriate behaviour among the inexperienced local gardai – into a very short portion at the end. Had they been woven together more effectively, it might have been both more interesting and more challenging.
What the film manages to do very well, sin emabargo, and better than most, is to capture both the minutiae and magnitude of grief. When Sophie’s aunt in Paris, Marie-Madeleine, first heard the news she was sure there had been a mistake (“I said it can’t be Sophie, because she spoke to her husband last night”). Sophie’s son, Pierre-Louis, 15 at the time of her death, remembers being woken by his father in the night to be told the news. “It was a sudden transformation from childhood to adulthood. When she died, a little part of all of us crumbled," él dice.
It gave us a rounded portrait of Sophie herself and concentrated on the reverberations of loss round the family and efforts to try to bring Bailey, as the family see it, to justice. I know it’s an Irish stereotype (but sometimes it’s so for a reason), but the people of the village gave unabashedly lyrical accounts of Sophie and the terrible aftermath of her death. With their help, the film made her live again, a presence in the story more than even the most well-intentioned of their kind usually manage. And some, por supuesto, make little effort to remember the victim at all.
If the film lacked the surprising revelations and investigative deep dives seen in the top echelons of true crime reporting, it should find its place as a sensitive and moving attempt to sketch the outlines of horror and grief. It was also – especially for female viewers – a harrowing reminder that you are not safe anywhere. If they want to, the wolves will come down the mountain. They will find you – however safe you think you are.